Thursday morning became a hotbed for rumors about the future of NBC pillar The Tonight Show. It seems that for the second time in five years, the Peacock is finding the least graceful way to handle the impending departure of Jay Leno (a decision that nearly killed the network five years ago, and a decision that the network is more than willing to make again).
The first piece of news was that with Jimmy Fallon’s anticipated ascension to the late-night throne, The Tonight Show would return to New York for the first time in four decades. According to the New York Times, NBC is apparently already in the process of building the set at their Rockerfeller Center studios in anticipation of a 2014 transition, with fall of 2014 being the latest possible date for such a transition. I am entirely in favor of such a move, if only because the idea of NBC’s four most venerable institutions (Today, The Tonight Show, Saturday Night Live, and the NBC Nightly News) in one building just feels correct.
In turn, this transition has also managed to cause Leno to slowly open fire on NBC in his recent monologues, including making constant mentions of how NBC has managed to dip to lower rankings than Spanish language Telemundo, making it the number five network in America. This in turn prompted an angry email from NBC head honcho Robert Greenblatt demanding that Leno stop bringing up that embarrassment on air. Needless to say, Leno has continued mining NBC for fodder since the email was sent. Personally, (and very rarely do I do this) I have to take Leno’s side in this kerfuffle. Mocking the network president is a time honored television tradition (and about 1/3 of the jokes in the entire seven season run of 30 Rock). If you don’t want to be fifth or have people point out you’re fifth, maybe I would stop putting out shows like Animal Practice and Do Not Harm.
So how’s Fallon reacting to all of this? He’s being coy, saying all the right things, and generally trying to keep this succession from spiraling out of control, playing down the rumors in last night’s monologue.
What do I think overall? I think NBC needs to play their hand particularly cool, as the last time they bruised Jay Leno’s ego they eviscerated their prime-time schedule, embarrassed themselves and dug themselves a hole that they are still struggling to get out of three and a half years later. Furthermore, NBC has traditionally proven themselves inept at making the Tonight Show transition (see: Carson to Leno, Leno to O’Brien back to Leno), and being aggressive at forcing Leno out seems to create a much bumpier ride than there needs to be. People forget it took a decade of Friday guest hosts and a considerably older Johnny Carson to move him from the late-night chair. That being said, it’s probably in the best interests of NBC to move Fallon to the Tonight Show chair as soon as possible, as Late Night seems to be getting the lions share of both the advertising and the ratings stunts (Justin Timberlake week). However, I could also see it being likely that the Leno force-out is part of broader network-wide change in personnel with the ratings struggles of Today possibly forcing Matt Lauer out in the near future as well.